(Mis)understanding the Female Orient – A Visual Essay

Orientalism and thus orientalist ways of thought pervade everyday life, alter individual experiences and change how one positions themselves within the world. Edward Said’s concept describing Western privilege and Eastern subjugation proved effective in determining the struggle faced by Muslim women in Western diasporic communities.

An analysis of Said’s work highlighted the way in which Middle Eastern culture is presented as different, irrational and extreme when compared to that of Western ideology. This process of thought is something that is prevalent throughout Western society, and by further scrutinising this biased system of thought it was revealed to have perpetuated prominently within mass media outlets within the West and in particular in Australian communities. Dr Shahram Akbarzadeh and Dr Bianca Smith effectively make reference to the repercussions of Orientalism in their article which presents a content analysis of Australian media articles in The Age and The Herald Sun newspapers. Within the article, both authors acknowledge the negativity surrounding cultural perceptions of Middle Eastern individuals and moreover note the role of the mass media in the cultural production of knowledge. They state “the media is a significant social agent, with the potential to influence community perceptions” (Akbarzadeh & Smith, 2005, p.1). The harmful presentation of Muslims and the Arab Other has thus proved to be a significant issue within the Australian cultural landscape, and this negative perpetuation of stigmatised ideals poses a notable threat to the notion of multiculturalism and cultural diversity.

Akbarzadeh and Smith (2005) note “the term ‘Islamophobia’ has been used by some commentators in recent years to describe the increasing isolation and victimization of Muslims living in the West” (Akbarzadeh and Smith, 2005, p.2), reinforcing the notion of Orientalism Edward Said has described in the past. Akbarzadeh and Smith (2005) moreover examine the way in which traditional legacy media within Australia presents the Female Orient — Muslim women. These women, portrayed as repressed, socially backward and often sexualised within reporting and broadcasting methods, are stereotyped immensely, changing the way in which society perceives them and their way of life. The oppression of Muslim women is often heightened within the mass media, and as a result, the empowerment of Muslim women is often subconsciously ignored.

In a case study examining the Western media’s portrayal of Muslim women, and moreover their decision to wear the hijab, the traditional meanings associated with this form of religious expression are noted as being lost as new meanings are drawn upon through negative news coverage (Posetti, 2006). In particular it is noted that “this is in line with Said’s theory of Orientalism (Said, 1978), which contends that the Muslim world and its inhabitants are considered backward, barbaric and outsiders to Western society” (Posetti, 2006, p.3). Posetti (2006) notes the importance of wearing the hijab for Muslim women, and moreover scrutinises that this inextricable piece of Muslim identity is warped in news content. When conducting research, Posetti invaluably interviewed a female Muslim living within Australia in order to contextualise the effects Orientalism and stigmatised media portrayals has had on personal identity. Interviewee Sarah Malik reveals “you feel defined by representations you see in the media … it affects your self-esteem” (Posetti, 2006, p. 8). With the effects of Orientalist thought being presented, an enquiry into how Muslim women would portray themselves was then warranted to heighten the understanding of personal experience and individual struggle.

To counter the Orientalist claims presented within the wider mass media landscape and to further communicate the global struggle of the Arab Other an analysis of pro-Muslim texts proved effective. To further enhance one’s understanding on why Muslim women choose to wear the hijab, and to moreover prove that this is indeed a personal decision rather than a sign of oppression, the articles presented by both Aisha Stacey (2009) and Radhika Sanghani (2014) were utilised. Stacey (2009) notes the significance of wearing the hijab for religious purposes, as a means of fulfilling God’s wishes. She also recognises that this is an extremely exclusive decision that has the capacity to liberate women from negative social expectations and standards of sexualisation. Wearing the hijab is a clear depiction of Muslim identity, and thus Stacey (2009) exclaims that “women who wear hijab insist that the advantages far outweigh any disadvantage conjured up by media bias or general ignorance” (Stacey, 2009). Further extrapolating on this notion, journalist for The Telegraph UK Sanghani (2014) engages with an online audience to present personal accounts on why wearing the hijab is an important part of a rich and culturally diverse belief system. Validating the responses which claim wearing the hijab is freeing, liberating and an expression of religious identity, Sanghani (2014) quotes a reddit user claiming the hijab promotes feminism, “If women can choose WHY and HOW, they are exercising basic rights. You decide if you want to, decide why, decide how” (Sanghani, 2014). The claims expressed in these two articles thus contradict those expressed within the traditional mass media landscape, and leave one questioning why beliefs and perceptions surrounding the Arab Other have not changed despite this form of enlightenment.

As a result individuals are presented with two very opposing binaries in which to view the Eastern world. On the one hand there is the extremist, intolerant and oppressive Arab world which dehumanises and delimits. Then there is the East which promotes feminism, female liberation and the free expression of religious identity. The way in which society grasps the concept of the Eastern world is thus highly dependent on the way in which mass media chooses to present it — through an Orientalist lens or an accepting and culturally diverse discursive framework.

Textual References:

  • Akbarzadeh, S., & Smith, B., 2005, ‘The Representation of Islam and Muslims in the Media (The Age and Herald Sun Newspapers)’, School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University, pp. 1-38.
  • Posetti, J., 2006, ‘Media Representations of the Hijab’, Reporting Diversity – Journalism in Multicultural Australia, Australia, pp.1-38.
  • Sanghani, R., 2014, ‘Feminism, Fashion and Religion: Why Muslim Women Choose to Wear the Veil’, The Telegraph UK, 25 September, viewed 19 May 2015, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/ women/womens-life/11120588/Muslim-women-reveal-why-they-wear-the-veil-burqa-school- debate.html>
  • Stacey, A., 2009, ‘Why Muslim Women Wear the Veil’, The Religion of Islam, viewed 19 May 2015, <http://www.islamreligion.com/articles/2770/&gt;

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